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How to turn the one Scandinavian language you are learning into three

Becky Waterton
Becky Waterton - [email protected]
How to turn the one Scandinavian language you are learning into three
You probably won't be able to figure out the Danish number system straight away. Photo: Nick Karvounis on Unsplash

The Local Sweden's Deputy Editor, Becky Waterton, who speaks fluent Danish and Swedish (and understands Norwegian), gives her best tips for how to learn to understand the other Scandinavian languages if you already speak one of them.

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I recently wrote an article asking why Scandinavians don't make more of an effort to understand each other, often preferring to switch to English when meeting someone who speaks a different Scandinavian language.

Rather than just complaining that Scandinavian language-speakers are lazy, I thought I'd do something positive and give you my best tips for learning how to understand the other Scandinavian languages when you already speak one of them, and how you can make yourself understood.

How to understand the written language

The easiest way to learn to understand the written language is, unsurprisingly, to expose yourself to it.

Change the language of your phone, computer and social media accounts to the language you want to learn. Pick up magazines or newspapers in the other language, borrow books (preferably ones you've already read in your native language) and read them in your target language.

Follow people social media who post about topics you find interesting - this could be anything from cookbook authors to influencers, comedians, celebs, streamers, or academics - you name it.

Finally, change the subtitles on whatever streaming services you use to the language you want to learn - this applies for anything you watch, be it a show originally in English, Norwegian, Swedish or another language entirely. You'd be surprised how much you can pick up from context.

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Written Scandinavian: The basics

Firstly, there's obviously a difference between spoken and written language, especially regarding Danish, where the difference between the two is huge.

In general, written Swedish differs considerably from both Danish and Norwegian, but written Danish and Norwegian are pretty similar, although there are two official written forms of Norwegian: Bokmål and Nynorsk.

Nynorsk is slightly closer to Swedish and Bokmål is closer to Danish, but Danish speakers should still be able to understand most words. There is also a lot of variation within Nynorsk, so don't be surprised if you see the same word spelt in multiple different ways in a text written in Nynorsk.

It's also useful to learn the basic differences between the written Scandinavian languages.

"Hei og velkommen til Oslo!" Photo: Arsene M Øvrejorde on Unsplash

Swedish is the only Scandinavian language to use ä and ö, whereas Danish and Norwegian use æ and ø. Swedish is also the only Scandinavian language to use x in words such like extra, which would be spelt with ks in Danish and Norwegian - ekstra.

Danish words often have -e as a final vowel (bade - to bathe, lampen - the lamp). Swedish uses -a (bada, lampan), and both are accepted in Norwegian, depending on whether you're writing Bokmål or Nynorsk.

Danish also uses the long form of words such like have (have) and give (give), where Swedish would use the short form (ha and ge) Confusingly, have and give are often pronounced ha and gi in Danish, despite their spelling. Again, both versions are used in Norwegian (ha/have, gi/gjeve).

You'll also see words like væg, top and hat (wall, top and hat) spelled with a single final consonant in Danish, where Norwegian and Swedish would have a double consonant. (Norwegian: vegg, topp, hatt, Swedish vägg, topp, hatt).

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The Scandinavian version of the prefixes un- or im- (in words like unwilling or impossible) varies, too. Danish and Norwegian use u, like in umulig (impossible), where Swedish uses o: omöjlig.

One of the most obvious differences between the three languages is which consonants are used. Danish, for example, will use the consonants b, d, and g, in places where Norwegian and Swedish would use p, t, and k.

Here are some examples: gab (yawn), fod (foot) and rig (rich) in Danish become gap, fot and rik in Swedish and Norwegian. You'll see another consonant difference in the Scandinavian word for 'thank you', which in Danish is tak, Norwegian takk and Swedish tack.

Danish in words like mave or skov (belly, forest) is replaced by in Swedish (mage, skog), and vn in words like havn (harbour) or København (Copenhagen) are spelled with mn in Swedish (hamn, Köpenhamn)Both variants are acceptable in Norwegian.

"Hej og velkommen til København!" Photo: Nick Karvounis on Unsplash

Sweden drops the in Danish hv- in words like hvad, hvid (what, white), which are spelled vad and vit in Swedish, where Norwegian uses both hv, v and kv.

There are also a range of differences in vowels, for example the words for milk: Danish mælk, Norwegian melk/mjølk and Swedish mjölk is one example, and the words for eye, Danish øje, Swedish öga and Norwegian øye is another.

Norwegian also sticks out due to its use of diphthongs: bein, steine (leg, stone) are ben and sten in Danish and Swedish.

Norwegian Nynorsk and some variants of Bokmål have three genders ("a man, a girl, a house" would be ein mann, ei jente, eit hus in Nynorsk vs en mann, ei/en jente, et hus in Bokmål), whereas Danish and Swedish only have two genders (en mand, en pige, et hus/en man, en flicka, et hus). 

I should probably warn you about the Danish numbers, too...

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How to understand the spoken language

The most important thing here is to try and resist the urge to switch to English, and make it clear to whoever you're speaking to that you'd like them to keep speaking their Scandinavian language too.

Don't be afraid to ask them to repeat themselves, speak more slowly and more clearly if you need to. Of course, they might want to switch to English anyway, and you can't force them not to, but don't just decide that the other language is too hard to understand and give up without trying.

Practice listening to the other language, either on TV or on the radio. Radio can sometimes be better as you're really forced to focus on what they're saying and can't rely on context or on written language via subtitles, for example.

You can stream most TV from Scandinavian public broadcasters SVT, DR and NRK from anywhere in the world, although some programmes will only be available to those living in the same country (usually this applies to international programmes or popular Scandinavian which have been sold to other countries).

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Podcasts and music are also a great way to practice your listening - I can recommend Norsken, svensken och dansken, which features a Norwegian, a Swede and a Dane all communicating in their native languages.

You can often find Spotify playlists in your target language, too like this one of popular Danish songs, this Swedish version and this Norwegian version, and if you click on the 'lyrics' button in the Spotify app (it looks like a microphone), you can also read along to the lyrics as you listen.

You might surprise yourself and find a new favourite artist or genre - I got really into Scandinavian rap and hip hop when I started looking for Norwegian and Swedish music to listen to a few years ago, despite not really listening to rap in English.

Here's another top tip for finding music in another language: search Spotify for "The Sound of" followed by the language and genre you're looking for, like The Sound of Norwegian Black Metal or The Sound of Swedish Pop or The Sound of Danish Alternative Rock.

"Hej och välkommen till Stockholm!" Photo: Adam Gavlák on Unsplash

How to be understood

If you want to make sure other Scandinavian-speakers can understand you, try to speak slowly and clearly, especially if you speak Danish.

As a non-native speaker of a Scandinavian language, you probably already have a good understanding of what you found difficult when you were learning the language, and you may naturally speak more slowly and clearly than native speakers when talking to other non-native speakers.

You don't need to completely change your pronunciation to match the language of the person you're talking to, but you may end up speaking a sort of adapted version of your language, which is usually good enough for communication purposes.

There are also some words which differ between the three languages. These are good to learn and swap out depending on your audience.

Here's a short and by no means exhaustive list, although you'll realise again that Danish and Norwegian Bokmål are pretty similar.

Danish/Norwegian (Bokmål) Swedish English
bevæge/bevege flytta move
bolig bostad property
evne förmåga ability
fælles/felles gemensam common, shared (such as a common area or shared values)
forskellig/forskjellig olik different
heldig tursam, lyckosam lucky
høst skörd harvest
efterår höst autumn
kjole klänning dress
nederdel/skjørt kjol skirt
kun bara only
kunstig konstgjord artificial
underlig konstig weird
nabo granne neighbour
rolig lugn quiet
sjov/morsom rolig fun
semester termin semester
ferie semester holiday
spøg/spøk skämt joke
spøgelse/spøkelse spöke ghost
travlt/travelt mycket att göra busy
uge/uke vecka week
værelse rum room
væsen/vesen varelse creature
vindue/vindu fönster window
pige/jente flicka girl
dreng/gutte pojke boy

 

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